Last Saturday, another awesome game of rugby, as Northampton beat Saracens 24-20 in the final play of the Premiership final. Cruel on Saracens, who won the league in normal time by nine points. Even crueller, as they lost the previous weekend to Toulon, in the Heineken Cup final. To be so near to the two top trophies and to win nothing…
Do we sympathise with Saracens? Well, not really. A team who have bought their way to the top, with an emphasis on South African imports. But, in fairness, they now have a very good sprinkling of England players and some excellent youngsters coming through. Even so, they are the team in England that everyone loves to hate. I was cycling down to the Thames on Saturday and encountered some Northampton fans on Kew Bridge. I wished them luck. They said to me they had met a fair few Quins fans and they all wanted them to beat Sarries. I confirmed that and rode on.
The game was a cracker. Saracens dominated possession, but Northampton were more incisive. At 80 minutes the score was 14-14. Saints had scored two tries to Sarries’ one. So it went into extra time – another 20 minutes and two halves of ten. The players who’d stayed on for the whole game – top players – were out on their feet. Penalties were exchanged to make it 17-17. And then Saracens got another. 20-17. The clock ticked down. Saints had one last push. Inexplicably, as they pushed close to the Saracens line, they didn’t just feed the ball back to fly half Stephen Myler, who could have put over an easy drop goal. That would have been 20-20, and Saints would have won on tries scored. There was a suspicion that the players didn’t actually know what the rules were. That was sort of confirmed by the Northampton head coach, Jim Mallinder, afterwards. Then again, it might have just been that Myler didn’t fancy the responsibility.
Whatever, Saints pushed on and scored a try – allowed after intense analysis by the Television Match Official (TMO), who judged that a Saints player – Alex Waller – had grounded the ball just over the line, amid the general melee.
Result to the Saints!
It was harsh on Sarries, who had two tries disallowed by the TMO – one for obstruction of a defending tackler and another for a forward pass. The latter was disallowed after the referee, JP Doyle – who is very well respected – had given it. Both decisions in the end were correct, but they showed how important the TMO has become in rugby. It’s an admission that the referee cannot make the crucial judgements a lot of the time. It just about works in rugby, which is a stop-go game. But when it happens to football – which it will – who knows what the consequences will be.
I use the word awesome a lot when I write about rugby because the physicality of the game is so amazing these days. There was a moment in the Saints-Sarries game when the Northampton wild man, Courtney Lawes, took out Sarries’ substitute fly half, Charlie Hodgson, with a tackle which, while legitimate in rugby, would have led to an arrest in any other life. You do wonder whether, in the not too distant future, new rules will be brought in on tackling. Alternatively, the players will start to wear the same armour as American football players.
So now, the show, for us English, moves on to three tests against New Zealand! The Sarries and Saints players will miss the first test, this coming Saturday, as they will still be recovering from last Saturday’s slugfest.
And then they’ll be duffed up by the All Blacks in the next two!
Fingers crossed for the England lads, but three tests against the best side in the world, soon after the end of a tough domestic season, will be very difficult.
We have a good, young side right now. Three games against the All Blacks will show us how far we have to go. If I was going to bet on it, maybe I’d go for two defeats, by reasonably close margins, then a win in the last game. Hope I’m wrong, but this is New Zealand!